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Brad Petersen
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56 Everitt Lab
1406 W. Green St.
Urbana, IL 61801
Phone: (217) 244-6376
Fax: (217) 265-6499
bradp@illinois.edu

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Skiing for Sochi is like a startup

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By Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS
February 5, 2014

  • Alumnus Paul Bragiel (BSCompE '99) put his entrepreneurial energy into a childhood dream: competing in the Olympic Games.
  • He learned to cross-country ski, spent the year training, and along the way, he found others—including the president of Colombia—who supported his dream.
  • Although Bragiel will not be competing at Sochi, his pursuit is a lesson that any burgeoning entrepreneur or Olympic hopeful can look to for inspiration.
All startup companies begin with an idea. 
 
It’s an almost instantaneous moment of connection, when disparate concepts, lying, as they were, like piles of unspun wool on the floor, are knit together into a creative fabric. The whole is seen. There’s a burst of clarity.
 
From there, the company has to accrue team members and investors, but in the end, that fabric becomes something tangible and real.
Photo courtesy of Team Paul.
Photo courtesy of Team Paul.
And often the development is an inspiring saga when recounted, regardless of its outcome.  
 
For alumnus Paul Bragiel (BSCompE ’99) one of those moments came a year ago. Except, unlike previous ideas that inspired three successful startups and four tech incubators (including the San Francisco-based i/o Ventures, which he co-founded in 2010), this time it was the realization that he could apply the same startup methodologies to pursue a childhood dream. 
 
Although he was feeling out-of-shape (after, perhaps, too many lattes in the café at i/o Ventures) and hadn’t participated in sports since high school track, Bragiel wanted to compete in the Olympic Games.    
 
He dropped everything. He picked a sport. And he began training. 
 
Now—spoiler alert—Bragiel will not be competing at Sochi when the Winter Games begin this week, but his approach is a lesson that any burgeoning entrepreneur or Olympic hopeful can look to for inspiration.
 
“I’m pursuing a dream. So in just doing that, in taking that step, I win,” Bragiel said in one of several professional-quality shorts that document the Team Paul pursuit. “Now I’ll never look with regret when I’m 75-years-old, like, ‘Oh, I wish I had tried.’”
 
The first thing that Bragiel did—like any good entrepreneur—was talk to people. He called his family and brainstormed with friends. They helped flesh out the idea. After choosing cross-country skiing by process of elimination (it has one of the widest gaps between first- and last-place finishers), there was still the obstacle of making it onto a national team.
 
Team USA would be, well, a bit unrealistic for someone who’d never cross-country skied before. Gaining citizenship in a tropical county with no history of cross-country skiing might work, though. 
 
Bragiel began writing emails and working his contact list. In the meantime, he took a year’s leave from i/o Ventures and flew to Finland to begin training.
 
Another tech-industry friend suggested Bragiel meet with Heikki Haapamaki, a cross-country skiing coach and former professional skier. Haapamaki agreed. 
 
In the world of tech startups, Haapamaki is the equivalent to the acknowledged expert that a fledgling company brings in as a consultant. Haapamaki coached Bragiel through months of training, both on and off the snow: running through Finnish bogs and roller-skiing on paved mountain trails. He spent months training as many as four times a day. 
 
“The power of throwing my dream out there has already made the first miracle happen,” Bragiel said in another Team Paul video. “I got in touch with Heikki…who was immediately willing to help me with my dream.”
 
 Then, last August, with his training going strong, Bragiel received a much-needed break: he was granted Colombian citizenship through a direct decree by President Juan Manuel Santos (the decree was required to expedite the process). And again, it was the power of personal connections, which Bragiel has developed with international, tech-minded people, which brought this bit of luck. 
 
Two of the tech incubators that Bragiel co-founded—the Savannah Fund and Golden Gate Ventures—are designed to promote international entrepreneurs. 
 
He’s met with the president of Tanzania and the mayor of Rio de Janeiro. This year, he attended the World Economic Forum in Davos to represent the Savannah Fund. And back in 2012, Bragiel met Catalina Ortiz, the president of iNNpulsa, an innovation and entrepreneurship agency within the Colombian government.
Photo courtesy of Team Paul.
Photo courtesy of Team Paul.
That group, recognizing Bragiel’s career as a tech entrepreneur, provided the inroads needed to speed the citizenship process along. 
 
“None of this would have happened without the incredible people at iNNpulsa…The amount of work they have done in order to support my dream has been amazing,” Bragiel wrote in a Facebook post shortly after the citizenship was granted. “What really gets me emotional is that they truly believe in me and my dream. They welcomed me into their Colombian family and are even willing to let me represent them internationally as a fellow compatriota.”
 
As such, Bragiel became the founding member of the Colombian Cross-Country Ski Team. 
 
Even with the citizenship granted, there was still the monumental task of qualifying for the games. It would require at least five races that met the International Ski Federations time qualifications (which varied depending on the length of the course and the speed of the top finishers). Those events started in mid-November and continued almost weekly at various courses throughout Europe. 
 
Eventually after contending with high fevers at the end of December, it became evident that Bragiel wouldn’t achieve those times. But in some ways, that doesn’t matter. 
 
“When you shoot with a low goal, you hit that goal,” Bragiel says in one of the first Team Paul videos. “But when you go—,” he motioned with his hand like a soaring business growth chart, “even if I make it halfway, you’re going to do something cool.”
 
Throughout the process, Bragiel also demonstrated the sort of storytelling that goes along with turning dreams into reality—as important on the snow trails as it is at the desks of any startup company. It’s not enough to have a cool product, Bragiel advises entrepreneurs in a filmed interview done for Slush, a northern European and Russian tech conference. Instead he encourages entrepreneurs to ask themselves, “What’s behind this? Why should I have an emotion to buy this product?”
 
That kind of storytelling has worked for Team Paul. In another of video, a former skier for the Finnish Olympic team, Jesse Väänänen, visited Bragiel to ski and offer advice. 
 
“Actually, my friend sent me a link to Paul’s Team Paul Facebook page, and I immediately contacted him,” Väänänen said in the video. “It’s something about the look and feel of the page and the pictures and the whole story was really nice and exciting to me. I knew that I might have something to offer him because of my background.”
 
In a Facebook post, following that interaction, Bragiel wrote, “I believe this more now than ever... If you put your ridiculous dreams out there and share them with the world, often times the world answers.” 
 
So, no matter the end result—whether Bragiel walks into the Olympic stadium for the Parade of Nations or not—the story is a success. It’s an account of seeing that illusory fabric and giving everything to make it a golden fleece.
 

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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